The stand-off at the meat factories is not just about beef, it’s about who owns our land.
There is surely nothing more emotive to any Irish person than that question.
When I say it’s about who owns our land, I don’t mean who owns it legally; I mean who gets the benefit from working it.
It is on this question that our land agitation and Land Acts turned. It was on this question, eventually, that our very independence as a nation turned.
Most of us feel emotional about our land and are protective of those who work it. We know on some instinctive level that those who work on the land to produce food deserve to profit from it.
When we hear farmers breaking down outside meat factories because they can’t afford their kids’ school books we get upset.
We know something serious is happening and we want to fix it.
How, though? There is no easy fix.
Emotion won’t fix the price which protesting beef farmers are getting for their animals.
It wasn’t going to re-open the meat factories which the meat processors say were closed by the farmers’ pickets or immediately restore the more than 3,000 meat processors’ jobs which were lost this week, hopefully temporarily.
Emotion only matters if it is followed by action. We need immediate action from Government now.
Of course we need to get the meat processors into talks with the farmers but they do have to have something to talk about.
The hard fact is that when the meat processors say that the price for beef is low because the European market for beef is depressed they have a point.
As a farmer explained to me off the record, the problem is that we have allowed our beef to enter the commodities market where it competes on price with much lower quality beef.
Our precious green fields are used by small farmers to rear their cattle for months and months to produce prime beef which is then minced by the international market and served up in hamburgers.
This “race to the bottom” agricultural policy has been pursued by government after government.
This requires greater inputs in feed and fertiliser until the farmer is ruined and so is the land.
When he gets to the factory gate, the farmer takes the price he’s given: currently as low as €3.45 per kilo.
Yesterday, the Beef Plan Movement was approved as a “producer organisation”, meaning it can negotiate prices on behalf of its members.
But Kieran Delaney from the protesting Independent Farmers of Ireland in Nenagh had earlier reckoned the price would need to be €5 for a profit to be made.
“This is the last chance”, he says of the pickets. “If this doesn’t work out, farming’s gone.”
Meat Industry Ireland wants the pickets stood down before they will negotiate but Delaney says the pickets won’t be removed because if they are the factories will go into hyper-production and the moment will be lost.
Even on a good day for beef farmers, EU subsidies currently comprise all the profit they get. This is a profound insult to farmers and an abuse of the national resource which is our land.
We need a proper land use policy for our country.
Clearly the Common Agricultural Policy should be reformed to reward practices which protect our land, our waterways and store rather than emit carbon. That policy may not be ready for another two years or more, however.
Meanwhile, rather than banging the heads of farmers and processors together, our Government needs to appreciate the depthof the problem facing rural Ireland and aggressively seek new solutions.
The rule which penalises farmers whose animals are brought to slaughter at more than 30 months is punitive and pointless.
When Bord Bia considers beef slaughtered at under 36 months to be “quality assured” and outlets such as Lidl and Supermacs are happy to sell it, why make farmers force-feed and process their beef cattle so fast?
Many argue that it is a unsustainable practice.
The processors say the markets demand it but farmers are not even told precisely where this demand is coming from. National governments can only do so much when it comes to retail which is why it is very important that the EU gets serious about banning the below-cost selling of food.
A motion to do so was passed by the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee late last year by 38 votes to four in a move described by a spokesman as an attempt to “arm the weakest in the food supply chain to ensure fairness and social rights”.
Too true. Selling food too cheaply destroys farms wages, destroys the land, destroys our respect for food and our healthy relationship with it.
So why are we still waiting for the EU to issue a directive which finally deals with this practice?
When it comes to meat processing, why have competition rules allowed control to be vested in so few hands?
Over 90% of meat processing is done by the three big processors and yet the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has said there is “no evidence of a cartel” and nothing to investigate.
Supermac’s chief executive Pat McDonagh has been out saying processors must be profiting because he is still paying the same price for beef , while the price paid to farmers has gone down. He has called for a guaranteed minimum percentage price for farmers.
The figures do show that the processing industry has a margin of around 0.7% or 1.2%.
If the factories’ economies of scale were not so great they might look for a better margin.
However, one holding company which owns Slaney Meats and Irish Country Meats and which is owned by Larry Goodman’s ABP and Linden Foods from Northern Ireland did post a profit of €3.12m last year.
Gerry Loftus of another new farmers’ group, Ireland’s Future, is calling for farmer-led and owned meat processing.
He is also calling for farmer-owned offal processing, and Larry Goodman’s control of licensed offal rendering and disposal in this country comes up again and again when you talk to picketing farmers.
Says Loftus, who has been the Mayo Chair of the Irish Natura and Hillfarmers’ Association:
He is calling for a new, sustainable model of farming which respects farmers and respects the land.
All over Ireland, this call is now being echoed by diverse voices among smaller farmers, smaller food producers and quality retailers.
Anyone who thinks the crisis at the meat factories can be solved with a few spare quid is a fool.
What is being played out here is no less than a battle for the soul of rural Ireland.
If we continue to sell the soul of rural Ireland for €3.45 per kilo our hell will be dead villages,dead towns and dead waterways on dead land.